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John V. Lindsay’s campaign started out with more promise. The charismatic, patrician Republican who had walked the streets of Harlem to keep the peace when other cities burned in the 60s switched his party registration in 1971 to mount a campaign that proclaimed, “While Washington’s been talking about our problems, John Lindsay’s been fighting them.” No less a hardened cynic than Hunter S. Thompson professed to be impressed.
“If you listen to the wizards, you will keep a careful eye on John Lindsay’s action in the Florida primary,” Thompson wrote in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. “Because if he looks good down here, and then even better in Wisconsin, the wizards say he can start looking for some very heavy company … and that would make things very interesting.” And if nothing else, Thompson hoped, the potential presence of both Lindsay and Ted Kennedy in the race might turn that summer’s Democratic Convention in Miami “into something like a weeklong orgy of sex, violence and treachery in the Bronx Zoo.”
But despite a cadre of loyal campaign aides that included a young Jeffrey Katzenberg and the speechwriter turned journalist Jeff Greenfield—and despite spending half a million dollars in Florida—Lindsay finished fifth, with just 7 percent of the vote.
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“A disgruntled ex-New Yorker hired a plane to fly over Miami with a sign reading ‘LINDSAY MEANS TSURIS,’” which is Yiddish for trouble, Greenfield recalled in an email this week. The Brooklyn Democratic leader Meade Esposito, still contemptuous of the mayor’s party switch, declared, “Little Sheba better come home,” a reference to the popular Broadway play in which a forlorn housewife pines in vain for her lost dog.
But Lindsay pressed on to Wisconsin, and Sam Roberts, who covered the campaign for the New York Daily News, still recalls “the mixture of hope and desperation.” Lindsay’s poll numbers were in the gutter, so to build momentum, he adopted a new slogan: “The switch is on.”
“I remember naively buying into the optimism,” Roberts remembers. “I wrote a story for the Daily News that Wisconsin was not likely to be Lindsay’s last primary. As the story was transcribed in New York, the word not was dropped. When it was published, I must have seemed prescient. The switch was on all right, but to other candidates. Lindsay ran sixth. The next day, he dropped out of the race.”
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The political world is different today, of course. So Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend may dream of presidential glory—and his big-city counterparts, including former Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, can, too. But the track record is not encouraging. Remember President Rudy Giuliani? Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland, and Calvin Coolidge were all mayors, but all first held other higher offices before winning the White House. Maybe, Greenfield suggested, that’s because the job of mayor “is seen in terms of picking up garbage and fixing the streets.” On the other hand, in Donald Trump’s Washington, that might be just what America needs.